Being only 2ish hours from the Grand Canyon must be pretty intimidating as another National Park. How can one compete with that grandeur? That vastness? The fame of being one of the world’s 7 natural wonders?
The Petrified Forest, though only a few hours east of the Grand Canyon, need not fear being overshadowed – it delighted me because it offered up a whole other type of experience. It’s a smallish NP (the road through it only runs about 20ish miles), and while 229 square miles is not tiny, it feels quite intimate upon exploration as the points of interest are scattered and unique. I liken it to a huge outdoor museum with varied exhibits to stimulate you, rather than one singular Focal Point of Wonder (for example, a certain enormous hole to the West designed to make you stand, mouth agape, with wonder). Here, there is a slice of the Painted Desert up north, petrified quartz trees scattered in the south, a blue Smurf village in between…
S and I spent a happy 6 hours at Petrified Forest, but saw most of what there was to see, even driving past the famous Wigwam Motel off historic Route 66 on the way out. Though our time was short, it made an impression on me. In our visits to all these desert parks – from Joshua Tree to Death Valley and the Grand Canyon, part of the awe was learning about the geological impacts of an immense span of time, water, and weather, and how it transformed these places from wooded forests, vast lakes, and tropical habitats into the sculpted deserts we see today.
The park exhibits have laid out the science of plate shifting, erosion and weathering, and kudos to the NPS in doing a pretty great job of helping me try to understand what the bygone era may have looked like and how it shifted so dramatically over time. But no where was there as tangible and visible a linkage between the then, and now, than in these rock forests.
The petrified forests, in case you hadn’t heard of them before (I know I hadn’t), are the rocks recreations of an ancient fallen forests. Trees from that time had fallen into river beds, been covered in silt, permeated with water and silica, and through the magic of time, pressure, and more time, have turned into solid quartz crystal.
It was stunning – to stand in a vast desert bare but for an assortment of desert shrubs, and see hundreds upon hundreds of quartz “logs” that marked where a vast forest once stood. The rocks themselves were brilliantly disguised – from afar most looked like felled logs with red and brown barks, but up close you can see they aren’t logs at all, but a solid quartz, with multi-colored crystals molding not just the tree bark, but even modeling the tree’s growth rings and knots in rainbow colors. They are pure, solid stone, the petrification process consisting of the magic of silica-infused trees trapped under immense pressure from layers of sand and earth above combined with a LOT of time. Not only was time needed to create these petrified logs, but more time was needed for erosion to sweep away the very same layers and leave this petrified forest.
When polished, the colors of the quartz are dazzling. But I was more dazzled by the seeing hundreds (thousands?) out on the plains of this desert and visualizing much more clearly now what the ancient landscape of giant trees may have looked like.
The colors of the Petrified Forest wasn’t limited to the petrified wood either. The Painted Desert shone in pinks and reds and greens. The Blue Mesa formations were a delicious blueberry parfait of shades of purples, blues and white. Each stop was as much a wonderland as the last, and we ran to and from our car at each stop, excited to see what brilliant colors were on display next.
It’s no Grand Canyon – and that is no bad thing. It’s more of a gem to unpack and view for its spectacular colors and history. Sometimes great things come in small (relatively!) packages.